Friday, April 16, 2010

This I Believe... (Part V: Disclosure of Beliefs)

God is a word that I find useful and that I use. I identify as a theist. I believe in God. What follows is an obvious need for clarification: Tell me about this God of yours. Is God male or female or transgender? Is God gay or straight? Is God active in the universe or is God like the watchmaker God of the deists, the God who has set the universe in motion like the pieces of a watch and then absented God’s-self from the picture? Is God up there, or all around us, or inside of us, or in nature, or represented by nature even though God transcends nature? Is God benevolent? Omniscient? Omnipotent? Or is God an unfolding process?

My theology of God begins with Paul Tillich. Tillich famously argued that God was not a being, but the “ground of being.” Tillich’s theology said that to say whether God exists or not makes God a conditional being. Existence is a higher category than God. Tillich rejected that concept and said that God was not a being but the ground of being. Therefore, for Tillich, it is not fair to say that God exists. Rather, you might make God into the verb instead of the noun and say that existence Gods. Thus, Tillich turns the ontological question of God on its head. (At least, that is how I understand Tillich’s theology of God.)

Tillich’s concept of God has never been entirely satisfactory to me, though I think Tillich is quite clever. And, I want to explain why Tillich’s “Ground of Being” God is unsatisfactory. Those of you with piously sentimental family members may have encountered the pietistic Christian piece of writing about footprints in the sand. It goes something like this:

A person walking alone looks back along the beach and sees two sets of footprints. It is discovered that God has been walking alongside this person. The person turns and asks God, “But what about those times where there is only one set of footprints?” God responds, “That was when I carried you.”

It is a horrible piece of writing. It is schmaltzy and the theology is atrocious. Yet, it contains a hint of something true and that something true is the sense in which it points to the idea of God as a relational being. If you think of the schmaltzy, footsteps on the beach poem, where is Tillich’s God? Tillich’s God is the context, the frame, that allows this image of God to exist.

I don’t reject the concept of a God who transcends being itself, but it doesn’t fully satisfy me either. Neither does the deistic God who works at a remove. Neither does the pantheistic God that lives inside of rocks and trees. Neither does a vaporous mist God, a God of the ether. Neither does the classical image of a God enthroned in the highest heaven. I’m okay with the idea of God as that still, small voice inside. I’m also okay with a God that is a relational being, a God that is the equivalent of interpersonal magnetism and relational connectivity. Sometimes I dig on the idea that God is present whenever two or three have gathered (Matthew 18:20), but sometimes I just want for two or three to be able to gather, if that makes any sense.

But, the image of God that is most real to me, most appealing, is a God that is beyond ontology but not beyond epistemology. I don’t mind the concept of a God that is the root of all knowing, but I want a God who is also an active knower. The root of my theology is that I am known fully by God, and I believe that each and every person, as well as each and every sentient creature is known completely and fully by God. My God is not a self, but a God who knows me better than I know myself. That is the God image that I use.

When it comes to the afterlife, I am an agnostic. I am, literally, one who does not know and I do not believe that it is possible for any living being to know what happens to us after we die. I believe that near death experiences are just that, near death experiences. I believe they do not contain any information about what happens to us after we die although I can completely understand why they are significant religious experiences for the people who have experienced them or who have had a loved one experience them.

I do not believe that we have an immortal soul that is distinct from the body. I love the word "soul" and I use it a lot. My use of the word "soul" is metaphorical. When I speak of a soul, I am speaking about the deepest core of our humanity, which is not apart from us but a part of us. Soul, in the metaphorical sense in which I speak of it, is not completely synonymous with conscience or empathy, though people whom I would describe as soulful tend to be deeply conscientious and empathetic. By soul work, I mean the way in which we become most able to access the deepest core of our own humanity.

Since I don't believe in an immortal soul, I don't believe that when we die an immortal soul absents itself from our body. However, while I am agnostic about the idea of the afterlife, I do not reject it entirely. I am fond of saying, “I do not know if there is a heaven or an afterlife, but I do know that if there is it will be pleasant." I may not be enough of an old-fashioned Universalist to accept the idea of a heaven created by a loving God to which all souls are reconciled. I am most certainly enough of an old-fashioned Universalist to completely and utterly reject the concept of Hell, especially an eternal hell. But, fitting with my concept of God as universal knower, I am most open in my agnosticism to the idea of heaven as a kind of universal consciousness. Again, I have faith that the afterlife, if there is one, will be kind and pleasant.

I used to joke that while I don’t know what the afterlife holds for us, the adventurous side of me is hoping for reincarnation. The problem with that is our concept of reincarnation is often caught up in the situation in which we live. Generally speaking, we tend to be privileged people living in a culture that encourages ambition and that continues to espouse teachings of upward mobility. I fear we are more class-bound and caste-bound than the story we tell about ourselves says that we are. All I am saying is that if life is an arcade game, most of us probably feel as if we have gotten our quarter’s worth. We may not have the high score, but many of us live lives that are in the top 1% of people playing the game on Earth right now and certainly in the top 1% of people who have ever played the game of life. Replaying life doesn’t sound too bad to us. In fact, the concept of reincarnation can seamlessly fit with a notion of American ambition and striving. It lets us add things to our "bucket lists."

Reincarnation, the infinite cycle of samsara, means something different if you live in a village in India. I’m riffing here. I’m playing jazz tunes with a world religion that is not my own. Scholars of Christianity tell us that when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, he wasn’t speaking of the future so much as speaking of heaven as a place on Earth, immediately available to us if only we had eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts that were ready to receive the gifts that the Gods of the days arrived bearing. Maybe, and I will fully admit to playing fast and loose with world religions here, just maybe samsara isn’t meant to be seen through the lens of ambition for more than we could possibly do in one lifetime, but rather it is meant to be seen as some reality that is here and now, giving cosmic significance to labor and toil and suffering and our own fate in a world that can seem repetitive and recursive.

I should probably say a few words about Christology, about how Jesus fits into my theology. When I begin to theologize about Jesus, I begin with the early Unitarians who regarded Jesus as an inspired teacher of a flawless and sublime ethic. In an 1803 letter to the Universalist physician and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, Thomas Jefferson wrote,
To the corruptions of Christianity, I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.
In my Easter sermon ten days ago I repeated the joke that has been going around on the internet: “Obama is not the dark-skinned radical socialist who believes in giving away free health care; you must be thinking about Jesus.”

But, there is a problem with holding this position. That problem was explained by Albert Schweitzer who in 1905 published Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer criticized more than a century of German scholarship that attempted to make claims about the identity of the historical Jesus. Schweitzer pointed out that scholars inevitably succeed in reconstructing a Jesus that looks a whole lot like themselves.

Schweitzer wrote a beautiful passage that compared looking for the historical Jesus to looking down a dark well. You gaze and gaze and see a shimmering figure and you think you see Jesus but you actually see your own reflection. We see a Jesus that looks like Jefferson’s Jesus of the Enlightenment. Mel Gibson’s Jesus is a cross between William Wallace and Mad Max; Mel Gibson’s Jesus is, well, Mel Gibson.

Hans-Georg Gadamer said, “My real concern was and is philosophic: not what we do or what we ought to do, but what happens to us over and above our wanting and our doing.” In other words, with the knowledge that our idea of Jesus will be shaped by our wanting and doing, are we capable of creating a true fusion of horizons, a true dialectical encounter with Jesus that challenges our own wanting and doing? I believe that Jesus provides a hermeneutic foil against which I can expand the horizons of my being. The Jefferson Bible is about Thomas Jefferson’s personal wanting and doing. He kept the parables and sayings. My encounter with Jesus is based on facing up to the parts of the story that are strange to me and challenging: the miracles, the unpredictable happenings, the passion, and the resurrection. These find a place in my theology because I feel a sense that my understanding is expanding when I attempt to gaze through the familiar shimmering reflection at the bottom of the well and gaze into darkness.

Let me quickly hit on a couple of other theological places worthy of consideration. As far as a cosmogony, an accounting of beginnings, goes, I am perfectly content and give full assent to the big bang and the theory of evolution. It is an account that fills me with a sense of awe, reverence, and wonder, but I do not go as far as Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow go in suggesting that the “epic of evolution” is a sufficient foundation for all theological ethics.

I could say even more about beliefs and I may have to another time. I haven't even touched on theological concepts such as soteriology, eschatology, or anthropology.

But, I want to say a few words about ministry and about the church. And, I also want to make the following attempt at self-definition.

Self-definition: I am a full-blooded, born and bred and educated Unitarian Universalist. My theological identity is informed by liberal and post-modern Christianities but also by transcendentalism among other sources. My calling is to serve the liberal church and the liberal expression of religion. I situate my ministry within the Unitarian Universalist tradition out of gratitude and out of a sense that my calling is to serve UU communities. I value pluralism and believe that my faith is sharpened, not diminished, by those whose faith journeys have led them towards atheism, humanism, scientific rationalism, secularism, Buddhism, Judaism, or earth-based nature worship. I believe my faith would be diminished if not for this pluralism and so I am committed to pluralism.

I rejoice in my ability to stretch and explore faithfully and playfully. This opportunity is truly present in Unitarian Universalist faith communities like this one in ways that it simply isn’t in others, and I believe that a significant threat to Unitarian Universalism is ideological arrogance that would diminish our capacity for theological playfulness. On the other hand, I also believe that a threat to Unitarian Universalism is theological sloth or smugness that leads to non-engagement with theological inquiry.

My theology of ministry is linked to my ecclesiology. I fundamentally believe that church is both the home of the holy and the home of the human. Churches are made up of real people with our own peculiarities, our warts and blemishes, our hurts and fears. Churches should be places where we make ourselves vulnerable and mutable. We are human beings and church is a place for human becoming. There needs to be the dynamic tension that we find in our UU third principle. Church needs to be both a place where we are accepted and where we accept one another and it also needs to be a place where we encourage others and are ourselves encouraged to spiritual growth. I believe that it is possible to flippantly rewrite our third principle to make it say something like, "I love you just the way you are. Now change!" The point is not to resolve this tension but to inhabit it fully.


Follow the link to continue to Part VI: Beliefs About Beliefs

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